The Problems With How We Treat Dopers

There was a small story the other day, not widely read, that I found fascinating and indicative of some of my concerns about how we deal with doping. Carolina Kostner, the Italian ice skater who took bronze at the 2014 Olympics, is probably going to get in trouble with Italian authorities for skipping a hearing where she was supposed to share information about her racewalker ex-boyfriend’s doping. Here’s what I find interesting about this:

Now this is taking place in Italy and, obviously, Italian law is different than US law, but I’m not sure under what authority she can be demanded to appear at a hearing about someone else — especially given that she retired from competition. This was, in part, the same problem I had with the federal criminal investigation into Lance Armstrong. Doping isn’t against the law, at least not here, at least not most of the drugs you can take. EPO, HGH, and testosterone are all legal drugs that can be acquired with prescriptions. Using them is not against the law, it is only against the rules of the sport, which — however much we think otherwise — do not govern the land.

(Clearly, yes, I understand the laws under which the federal fraud case against Armstrong can continue: because he accepted Postal Service money. But, that’s a whole other discussion about whether or not the Postal Service knew what they were buying. I’d argue when you pay for end results instead of what goes into them, then you get what you pay for.)

That also means that the system by which doping cases are decided is not within our legal system. It does not meet the standards we require in all court cases. It is not an innocent until proven guilty system. Sure, that’s what athletes agree to when they become athletes — though there isn’t another option — but it’s also something that the general public, up on a high horse and railing about how they were lied to, doesn’t seem to understand.

They don’t seem to understand that it’s a different system, which can be complicated, difficult, and expensive to prove your innocence, if you are actually innocent. And, even basic statistics would suggest that at least a few people who test positive have to be innocent. Not that you’d know that from how the system works.

Sure, most people who test positive probably doped. Sure, the testers are steps behind the dopers. Sure, you’re responsible for whatever you put in your body. But, if contaminated multivitamins never gave a false positive, then a banned swimmer wouldn’t have won a lawsuit against the multivitamin maker in an actual court of law.

Kostner likely has something to hide by not showing up at this Italian hearing, or else she’s just insanely stupid to disappear. But, for the Italian doping authorities to discuss stripping her retroactively of her medals and banning her from private commercial skating shows — for an allegation that is about her ex-boyfriend, not about her — seems beyond their scope of authority. How can they even control who does what in private commercial shows?

What Kostner, in this case, was supposed to testify to was that she had helped her ex-boyfriend avoid a doping test and also that she had seen him use an illegal altitude tent.

Altitude tents, which you sleep in to mimic the red blood cell boosting effects of living at altitude, aren’t illegal here. Living at altitude isn’t illegal in any country. Having a naturally higher level of red blood cells can’t possibly be illegal. On a theoretical level, it seems strange to me to draw a line and pretend that makes everything fair.

Caffeine isn’t banned. Cortisone isn’t banned, as long as you have a doctor’s note. Having the fastest equipment and the best trainers isn’t banned. Simply being bigger or taller or faster isn’t banned. There are clearly advantages people have — natural and not — that we allow. This raises a few intellectual problems for me. Banning some things creates a false sense of a level playing field, when that field hasn’t been level in a long time, if ever. It also seems hard to decide where you’re going to draw that line. If the legal hematocrit level is 50, then we’re saying there is no way anyone could naturally have a hematocrit over 50. They must be doping. And, yet, I have friends who have hematocrit levels in the mid-to-high 40s. One must assume that if I know people, who are fast but not that fast, in the mid-40s, then conceivably there is someone in the world who is naturally over 50.

Of course, I think doping is wrong and shouldn’t be allowed in sports. Of course, I recognize that doping distorts and corrupts who does well in what sport. (For example, cyclists who perform better at lower hematocrits have the most to gain from a doping regimen and then see the biggest jumps in performance.) But, I also recognize that a lot of our vilification of doping and dopers comes from our own need — “us” being the watching public — to believe that people can do these things and still be normal people, that they pay no consequences for their feats. We ask them to pretend and then we’re disgusted when they lie to us.

Book Recommendation: ‘The Secret Race’


For one of my classes we’re reading a lot about Lance Armstrong and doping in cycling (oddly, not much about it in other sports), so I re-read one of my favorite books on the topic, “The Secret Race.”

Yes, there’s a lot that’s been said on the subject by a lot of people with varying degrees of nuance and sophistication. Out of all that, I would add to my general list of readings I find interesting about cycling and doping: “From Lance to Landis” and the whole USADA investigation. But, “The Secret Race” is still one of my favorites and one of the most detailed descriptions of how things were in professional cycling of a certain time (and still are to a degree I’m sure). Doping is a part of how things were, a large part, but it is not the only part. Losing stupid crazy amounts of weight is a pretty big part too. Oh, and training.

The main reason this doesn’t read to me like just another professional athlete tell-all raking in the money from their own misdeeds is because Daniel Coyle, who wrote the book with/for Tyler Hamilton, is a good writer and a good reporter. He confirms facts and puts in rare footnotes what other information you might need as a reader. The other important reason is that I don’t think Tyler Hamilton is necessarily trying to cash in. I think he’s trying to make a confession of sorts, a coming clean, etc. I think he feels really bad about the lying, but not as much about the choices he made in the first place. Which is interesting. I mean it doesn’t take a psych student to watch his 60 Minutes interview and know that he was wrestling with a lot of demons.

If you really are interested in the sport and in sports, in the questions of how to address doping, instead of just depicting the problem as an individual problem, which makes it easy to dismiss as a moral failing instead of examine as a systemic failing, if you’re really truly interested with an open mind, then I’d suggest reading the book.

At one point, in passing, Hamilton writes/dictates-to-the-writer that he’s known some great guys who decided to dope and some really shitty ones who didn’t. And that’s probably true.

Why Lance Shouldn’t Be Banned from Strava

There were, yesterday, a few articles about Lance Armstrong posting rides on Strava and concern going around about how people were upset and wanted him kicked off. It’s not that I don’t understand why they’re upset. I can sort of get it: someone’s crashing your party and you don’t want them there. But, I don’t know that it was ever an invite-only party.

If you want to race against people in a regulated, structured environment governed by anti-doping rules, then do a race. Don’t post your rides on a website and then argue about who should be allowed on the internet.

Strava is an online site where people (mostly men) post bike rides (and runs, but really mostly rides) via their bike computers and GPSs. Segments are created, times compared, and winners declared. It’s like ‘I caught a bigger fish than you’ but with data. To some degree I think the whole point was supposed to be: How would I stack up? Could I beat the pros? Could I beat my friends? And to that end, it seems to me that Levi or Lance being on there and posting rides is exactly the point. If the real reason to post rides isn’t the “winning” or bragging rights, but to find out how you stack up against other cyclists, then wouldn’t you want to know? Why does it matter other than your pride?

I can see why it’d be fun. Steve made me an account and I looked at it. Every guy I know uses it. But, I don’t really. I just haven’t gotten into the whole pseudo-race thing. I also don’t love racing people on group rides or at Masters. This isn’t a firm stance on Strava, but more that it simply hasn’t appealed to me for whatever reason.

The other, sort of larger, problem I have with Strava, though, is that it creates a race scenario without the parameters of a race. Races come with permits and safety precautions and rules and agreements. And, there’s a reason for that.

Sure, it’s fine if you and your buddy want to see who can climb Bolinas-Fairfax faster. It’s fine if a group of you want to, but at some point that group starts to get dangerous. There’s no middle line on that road and cars descending often come close to hitting cyclists on their way up. At some point, encouraging people to go out and race sections of road on any random day is going to reach a mass where it’s just not a good idea. In most areas, Strava probably isn’t at that point yet, but around here it’s getting close.

Yes, Strava has a terms of use that says don’t break the law (the same terms of use that people are now saying should force out Lance or Levi). And, I don’t believe the company is liable for accidents or deaths as a result people choosing to break those laws. It’s always the person’s choice. But, that doesn’t mean everyone around the Bay Area hasn’t seen dozens of Strava douches doing stupid shit trying to take KOMs (King of the Mountain titles). People take parts off their bikes to make them lighter. They get decked out in aero gear and race wheels — perhaps that is why I’ve been seeing more race wheels on the roads lately — in order to ‘win’ some random stretch of road. They race, only not everyone on the road knows it’s a race.

Ignoring the fact that if you wanted Lance thrown off the site for doping, you really ought to prove that he is currently doping, since Strava certainly isn’t governed by USADA lifetime bans; ignoring the fact that you can’t argue doping is automatically breaking the law, because not all performance enhancing drugs are actually against the law, they are simply against the rules of certain sports (which Strava also isn’t necessarily governed by and which you well know); ignoring the fact that if you want to throw people off the site for some kind of law-breaking, you ought to throw off those actually endangering their lives and others; ignoring all that, it’s hard to take seriously the arguments that Lance cycling on public roads and posting that information on a website violates anything other than your sense of pride.

People seem to want to argue that Lance doped, he’s a cheater, his times and KOMs and leaderboards on Strava don’t count. Of course it doesn’t count. It’s a bunch of boys playing games on a website. None of it counts.